Living in Uncertain Times

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” — Alan Watts

Changes are everywhere. The U.S. Army is undergoing a substantial and fundamental force reduction as we transition away from two long and active wars. The business model of higher education is under direct assault from Massive Open Online Courses offering everyone access to education via the Internet. Funding for all government agencies is unreliable and subject to drastic and arbitrary cuts without consideration of strategic impact. Libraries are stumbling through a transition to digital content largely at the mercy of publishing and business interests that do not necessarily have our survival as a priority. Privacy increasingly feels like an afterthought. The rate at which new technologies are adopted is rising sharply. That which does not deliver value now wilts and quickly is discarded for the next.

This rapid state of change is our new normal. We find ourselves in the vortex of all of the changes listed above … the military, government, higher education, and libraries are all undergoing rapid and fundamental reshaping. None of these things will look the same as they did.

The most challenging aspect of this change is the uncertainty. We simply do not know what the future will hold. This year the threat and implementation of sequestration has brought this to a new level for all of us. We have seen sharp cuts to resource budgets, severe changes in services, and planned furloughs for staff.

When winds blow and the environment changes, the rigid and resistant suffer the most damage. Trees that are healthy and vigorous, regardless of age, can move and respond and adapt to what goes on around them. Once they become brittle and lifeless, they will snap and fall easily in even the lightest wind. Engineers know that they must allow for expansion and contraction from environmental conditions in their designs. If they do not, their creations will degrade much more quickly.

As a library, we can continue to grow to be more adaptable and flexible. Indeed, we cannot live and grow without changing. The particular challenges of the past year where we saw double-digit reductions in our resource budget, suspension of services, and potential furloughs can help condition us for the future, if we let them.

We can use this opportunity to press even more deeply into partnership with our faculty and cadets, developing a deeper awareness of the richness and depth in service and resource that the library provides. We will grow stronger as they expand and improve their view of the role the library plays in their scholarship and learning.

We can push to better understand and measure the value and use of our services and resources so that we can make positive, strategic choices about what to provide to our users. We can no longer afford to maintain services or resources that are lightly used or tangential to our core mission. This will help us better meet the actual needs of our users.

We will seek to employ more flexible acquisition tools for resources that will enable us to stabilize and preserve funding to the extent that we can. We must continue to press for purchasing agreements for content over lease of content to ensure availability through winds of change.

As an organization, we can work toward much greater cross-training and redundancy in skill and workflow to help us weather erratic hiring seasons. This will help us all continue to grow in knowledge and awareness of our work and mission and make us more resilient to damage as a result of conditions beyond our control.

Perhaps most important is that we push forward proactively as a library and a profession to define and create the future we want to see. The state of flux that we find ourselves in is a tremendous opportunity to build, grow, learn, and be even stronger than we have been before. But only if we bend and adapt and “join the dance.”

Published in USMA Library Program Review 2012-2014